Unraveling the Mystery

I thank Steve for his intervention into this conversation. His final question states the terms of the debate clearly. “Capitalism and liberalism moderated the family and made it more humane,” Horwitz writes, “Why anyone would want to undo those changes remains a mystery to me.” While I am no Sherlock Holmes, perhaps I can shed some light on this mystery.

I do appreciate that Steve believes that marriage and family form follow the “mode of production.” I think it just as likely that the causal arrows point in the other direction, namely that ideas about individual thriving, the conquest of nature, and family life have produced a new economy and the new complex of political ideas that have done so much good in the world. Nor do I think that these changes are the product, as Steve seems to think I think, of “short term whims” in public opinion. I trace the changes in marriage and family life to the earliest rumblings of modern political thought and an ever more thorough application of modern principles of contract and the conquest of nature. The changes are deep, long-seated, long-lasting, and very difficult to contain. Some of the movements are going to be impossible to reverse in the short or medium term and quite possibly in the long term. My powers of prophecy are not as sharp perhaps as Steve’s in this respect.

There are also more than a few beneficial consequences of this revolution.

The question is whether the advent of “moderate monogamy” has brought with it any negatives, whether the better comes at all with the bitter, and whether we can understand the costs that come with the revolution in married life. So let me pose the question in the following way: We show, as Steve suggests, “greater respect for the diversity of human relationships and more freedom to pursue those deeply meaningful life choices in the ways we see fit.” By this I take it he means to celebrate the fact that we treat cohabitation and single-parenthood the same as marriage; that we allow homosexual couples to marry, adopt, or have access to artificial reproductive technologies; that we allow for no-fault divorce so people can exit relationships when they do not comport with their conceptions of the good; and that other efforts to de-institutionalize marriage are welcome. Why, Steve asks, could any sane person resist these developments?

For an answer, I suggest Lauren’s book or a study of urban family arrangements and their outcomes. Lauren catalogues the problems of single parenthood, which include greater dependence on social provision, poor educational achievement, increased criminality, higher poverty rates, and a slew of other social ills. When Lauren published Family and the Politics of Moderation, around 73% of all African-American children were born to single mothers. That number has not declined. Has “greater respect for the diversity of human relationships” been a boon to these women and children or to these men? Are urban families better off?

Let us continue in this direction. Marriages designed for adult fulfillment tend to bring about a dearth in births and hence a loss of society’s dynamism, as society ages and as more resources are drained away to service the aging population. This is a trend noted since the late 1990s in book after book. Does the “greater respect for the diversity of human relationships” mean societal collapse? Are childless couples better off? Is society better off? Are such couples ultimately happier?

Charles Murray’s Coming Apart or Andrew Cherlin’s Labor’s Love Lost show that our moderate monogamy has also helped to stall equality of opportunity, or to harm the “right to rise” in the United States, as we are becoming a nation divided along family lines. Children from two-parent homes are generally getting a big leg up on those from broken homes. As the importance of education and work ethic increase, this gap gets larger. Is a “greater respect for the diversity of human relationships” helpful for the children or adults from these broken relationships? 

Let me be clear about this. I do not think that there is much government can do to reverse these trends, and I do not see these trends reversing themselves absent a strong, unexpected religious revival. There are still questions, however, of whether we should welcome further efforts to reconstruct the connections at the center of marriage and family life. Should we embrace genetic cloning to further weaken the link between procreation and education? Should we publicly fund efforts to mass-produce artificial wombs that might do the same? Should we encourage more flexible work environments, publicly subsidize day care, or have a minimal family wage? Should we welcome the production of sex robots as expressions of our “great respect for the diversity” of human choices, if not human relationships? 

Despite the fact that we cannot resist all of these changes, we should nevertheless understand the structure of what is going on. The de-institutionalizing of marriage may be a triumph in some respects for modern freedom, but it has inescapable costs related to children and society. We should look at “advances” in marriage arrangements through the ancient prism of tragedy, in which successes and failures come as a package deal. This is what ultimately separates Steve’s pretty much unqualified praise of modern movements and my skepticism. Could it be that for Steve life is a comedy and for me it has more than a few tragic elements?

Precisely how intelligent human beings evaluate the balance sheets on these goods and evils is a question that is open for debate, but that there is a balance sheet with credits and debits seems to be one of the truest deliverances of ancient and, in fact, classical liberal (as opposed to utopian) wisdom.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Lauren K. Hall argues that the family tends to moderate otherwise radical political theories. Moderate theories, however, fare much better. So while Marxists dreamed of a day when society would collectivize the traditional responsibilities of the family, in practice that day never quite arrived. On the other side of the political compass, Ayn Rand’s Objectivism seems to stumble when faced with questions of the family: “it is no accident,” writes Hall, “that John Galt is an orphan.”

    Moderate social theorists fare much better, Hall argues. Thus Adam Smith situated the family within the comparatively narrow sphere of our natural capacity to care; for him, our ties to our families exerted a gradual sympathetic effect that could encompass larger and larger communities over time, while moderating our radical political projects and attitudes. Edmund Burke made the family the archetype of a trans-generational social compact, one that binds the living to the dead and also to those yet to be born. As a result, the family acts as a check upon radical impulses from many different quarters.

Response Essays

  • Steven Horwitz accepts Lauren Hall’s paradigm that the family inculcates moderate individualism. He goes on to argue that such individualism is highly congruent to F. A. Hayek’s social theory. Families are equipped with local knowledge and know-how that may not easily be articulated, but that is also not easily replaced. The aim of much of this knowledge is to produce new adult individuals - a daunting task, but one that somehow human societies have accomplished again and again. Although Hayek was not a theorist of the family, applying his insights about the role of knowledge in society can help to explain just how this work gets done.

  • Scott Yenor argues that the family is grounded on a natural fact, namely that men and women must unite to produce offspring. In turn, these offspring are helpless for a long time after birth, and without the family they will not be well cared for. Modernity errs when it treats these facts as problems to be overcome. Lauren Hall’s politics of moderation doesn’t offer enough resistance to the dangerous changes now taking place around us. The modern left’s assault on the family does not call for a moderate response; this assault represents all that is “ugly, immoderate, or blind” about modernity, and as a result, we must rethink even modernity’s most fundamental principles.

  • Jason Kuznicki argues that family has not always played a moderating role in political theory. At times, it has been invoked as a support for despotism and even for slavery. Modern individualism may have its dangers, but traditional collectivism, and particularly patriarchy, were certainly worse. As a result, he questions whether family should have a place in political theory at all. He also asks: If, in the modern era, family moderates our politics, then what moderated our families?